Monthly Archives: October 2011

First they came for the protestors…

Last night,  Naomi Wolf – author of Give Me Liberty: A Handbook For American Revolutionaries – was arrested for her decision to support the rights of the  Occupy Wall Street protestors. The photo to the left was taken by Mike Shane and shows Wolf and her partner, Avram Ludwig, being hauled off to the 7th precinct for processesing.

The events leading up to Wolf’s arrest are as follows:

1) Wolf and her partner arrived at the “Game Changers 2011” event being hosted by the Huffington Post in the SOHO area of NY

2) As they entered, they noticed Occupy Wall Street protestors outside, noticing that they were using the “human mic” technique since they had been told using a megaphone was illegal; Wolf was apalled and reminded them that the 1st Ammendment says nothing about the prohibition of megaphones

3) Wolf and her partner quickly collected a list of grievances on behalf of the protestors to take to Govenor Cuamo (who was also attending the event).  They were, however, unable to locate him and other business pressed them to leave the event early.

4) On their way out, Wolf and her partner noticed that the protestors had been driven away from the building, guarded by the police who were keeping them far away from the very event they wanted to protest. Wolf approached the police and asked why; she was gruffly told that Huffington Post had a permit that prevented the protestors from using the sidewalk.

5) Wolf hunted down a HuffPost representative, suspecting such a line was pure malarkey, and indeed it was. The only restriction was that protestors could not block the paths of pedestrians or prevent them from entering or exiting the building.

6) Wolf then proceeded to inform the protestors of their rights, lead them back to the sidewalk where they could protest freely, and was confronted by the NYPD. Wolf describes the showdown as follows:

Then a phalanx of perhaps 40 white-shirted senior offices descended out of seemingly nowhere and, with a megaphone (which was supposedly illegal for citizens to use), one said: “You are unlawfully creating a disruption. You are ordered to disperse.” I approached him peacefully, slowly, gently and respectfully and said: “I am confused. I was told that the permit in question allows us to walk if we don’t block pedestrian access and as you see we are complying with the permit.”

He gave me a look of pure hate. “Are you going to back down?” he shouted. I stood, immobilised, for a moment. “Are you getting out of my way?” I did not even make a conscious decision not to “fall back” – I simply couldn’t even will myself to do so, because I knew that he was not giving a lawful order and that if I stepped aside it would be not because of the law, which I was following, but as a capitulation to sheer force. In that moment’s hesitation, he said, “OK,” gestured, and my partner and I were surrounded by about 20 officers who pulled our hands behind our backs and cuffed us with plastic handcuffs.

A video of Wolf’s arrest can be viewed here.

Wolf closed her re-telling with these words: “first they come for the “other” – the “terrorist”, the brown person, the Muslim, the outsider; then they come for you – while you are standing on a sidewalk in evening dress, obeying the law.”

Words cannot express my horror at this turn of events. Like many, I have been watching the growing video evidence of police brutality in New York. And like many, I am shocked by the complete and utter unconstituionality of the NYPD’s actions.

But this situation, in particular, upsets me to no end. Wolf committed no crime. She obeyed the law. She exercised her rights as a US Citizen peacefully and respectfully. And she was arrested.

It terrifies me to think that we are living in a country where it is increasingly becoming a reality that if you “question” the authority or the majority, you somehow become the enemy. This is especially troublesome for me as a writer, because I view it as my sacred duty to challenge the status quo, to inspire my readers to look at the world differently, and – above all else -encourage them to keep asking questions.

When did asking “Why?” become a crime?

Wolf’s final words in her account are especially chilling. They harken back to that famous poem from WWII, written by Pastor Martin Niemoller, that still rings eeriely true in our time:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.

 As Wolf asserts, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be “different” in America. To be the other. To be the one who thinks and lives outside the box and according to the tenets of his or her own conscience. This is also why it is important that we, as writers, defend the rights of those who are different and continue to tell their stories so that they are not swept under the rug and forgotten. That’s why books like Shine, The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, etc, are so important. They remind us that it is not wrong to be different, to be an outsider, to stand on the edge and say “No. This is not who I am. This is not what I believe in. I will have no part in this.”

They remind us to stand up for ourselves. And for what is right.

As e.e. cummings once said “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

The battle to be ourselves starts in childhood, carries on through adolescence, and follows us into adulthood. It is a continuous journey – an ever relevant issue – which is why I applaud Wolf for standing up – both for herself and for the rights of the protestors she was protecting – and saying enough is enough.

Here’s hoping that, someday soon, the folks in power might actually listen.


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YA Prose Problem #1: Parental Plot Bitches

This inaugural post is near and dear to my heart, largely because it’s a problem that I’ve discovered in my own writing. I just got my third packet back from my graduate advisor and, in it, she and I realized the same thing:

the father in my work-in process (WIP) is non-existant.

Sure he’s mentioned in passing. And he serves a legitmate purpose in the furthering of my plot. But when it comes to the actual “presence” of my father within the story, it’s as though he’s nothing more than a shade – a ghostly shadow passing in and out between chapters whenever I feel like summoning him. He has no life, no motivation of his own, and no ambition save to stiltingly choke out the few lines of diaglogue that I, his maker, have graciously given him.

In other words, to steal a phrase from the delicously audacious A.M. Jenkins…

the father in my novel is a “plot bitch.”

What is a plot bitch, you may ask? A plot bitch is a caricature. A cliche.  A rendition of a human being that is so shallow that it scarcely deserves the title. It is paper thin. And, just like paper, when you hold it up to the light, you can see right through it.

Naturally, I was horrified to discover that I’d done such a thing. But I found comfort in the fact that, according to the New York times, I am not alone in my tendency towards “plot bitchiness.”

In her essay, “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit,” Julie Just asserts that parents in YA stories are increasingly clumsy, ineffectual, and unrealistic:

 …some of the most sharply written and critically praised works reliably feature a mopey, inept, distracted or ready-for-rehab parent, suggesting that this has become a particularly resonant figure. …Afflicted by anomie, sitting down to another dismal meal or rushing out the door to a meeting, the hapless parents of Y.A. fiction are slightly ridiculous. They put in an appearance at the stove and behind the wheel of the car, but you can see right through them.

Though there has been some slight controversy over this article, I would like to suggest that Just isn’t arguing that writers can’t use characters who have some of the aforementioned traits. I believe Just’s real complaint is that, in a growing number of YA novels, parents are defined solely by these traits. Mopey with a capital “M.” Rehab with a capital “R.” And nothing more. These adjectives become place holders, subtitutions for actual identities. They are a quick way of “telling” the reader what a parent is like instead of showing them why he or she has become such a thing. Such parents make their entrances and exits, spout of a few lines of dialogue, and then disappear into the background again. They are rendered ineffective so that it is “easier” for the YA protagonist to move on and acheieve his or her goal.

In other words, they are plot bitches.

It’s not that your parents can’t be mopey. Or distracted. Or in serious need of counseling. But there needs to be a reason why – and that reason must be compelling enough to drive their everyday behavior. Yes, parents are secondary characters. But just like your YA progatonist, parents have their own stories too. They have a unique set of hopes, dreams, ambitions, and baggage that makes them who they are – all of which influence the way they interact with your protagonist (which in turn, of course, affects the way your protagonist interacts with the world). 

In a traditional story arc, the protagonist has a problem – a hole, a void, something that needs filling – and the majority of the story is spent trying to figure out how to solve that problem. The stakes are raised and tension is heightened, however, when conflict is present  in a story. After all, if a protagonist can reach his or her goal too easily, what’s the point in reading? There’s no risk. No danger involved. Conflict, however, adds excitement and urgency. It makes the reader want follow your progtagonist, to journey with him or her for the duration of a novel.

The problem with bumbling, absentee, faux-parents in YA is that they sometimes result in a lessening of the sort of conflict that is crucial for keeping readers engaged.  When the parents hold no weight, when they have no importance or power, not only does a story become unrealistic: it becomes frightfully predictable and boring.

If, however, your parents have a history – a set of goals, desires, and motivations – that drive them to act in a particular way, the miraculous can begin to happen. 1) You will find yourself crafting well-rounded, complex, and realistic human beings. And 2) The wants and needs of said human beings may come in direct conflict with the wants/needs of your protagonist, which is a lovely way to rachet up the tenison in your novel.

A great example of this is the mother in Nancy Werlin’s The Rules of Survival. She is anything but a plot bitch (though she may indeed deserve the latter half of that title). In many ways, she drives the plot because her wants/needs are constantly clashing with Matt’s (the protagonist). She cannot, however, be accused of being a caricature.  She is just as compelling as the progaonist she was created to compliment.

Marion Dane Bauer states it perfectly:

Your character needs a history that relates directly to his struggle…ask about the past as well as the present. What happened before now to make her want what she does? Is there something from her past that makes her problem more imporant to her? Or more difficult to solve? (What’s Your Story, 18)

By knowing the history of both their primary and secondary characters, writers can avoid the increasingly depressing scenario that Just desribes – one in which contemporary YA parents are no more authentic and, in fact, even less consequential than their literary predecessors (8).

So do your self a favor: whether you are in the midst of revising your current WIP or in the process of starting a new story, ask yourself: do my parents have a life and history of their own?

Or are they just my bitches?

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Here’s to one classy lady….

An interview with oh so classy Lauren Myracle who – if you haven’t heard – chose to step down after the recent selection debacle created by the National Book Award Committee.

As a VCFA student, I am proud of all the VCFA  nominees, including Franny Billingsley (my former advisor) and alumni Debbie Dalh Edwardson. But I am especially awed by Lauren’s courage and grace in the midst of what was, clearly, an awful situation.

My heart goes out to you, Lauren. And I’ll be purchasing my copy of Shine ASAP.

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The Meat and Potatoes of Life

To whomever may happen to stumble across this blog: Greetings!

Today marks the official launch of my blog: The Writing Life.  In this blog, you will find a host of things: book reviews (especially on YA Lit), craft discussions, opinion pieces, personal ramblings, and so on.

 I may also share snippets of my graduate school adventures with you, advice on the application process, etc, since I was lucky enough to get into the #2 low-res writing school in the country: VCFA. 😀 I’m a semester and a half away from graduating so, suffice to say, things are about to get interesting. 😉 Will I be able to do anything with this decidedly narrow degree when I graduate? Especially in this economy?

Who knows? But that’s not what this is about, is it?

It’s about living. It’s about that delicious moment when your soul gets poured onto paper, when your uniqe take on the human experiences rises up to kiss and caress the mind of the reader who encounters it.

As Bette Davis once said, “To fulfill a dream, to be allowed to sweat over lonely labor, to be given the chance to create, is the meat and potatoes of life. The money is the gravy. As everyone else, I love to dunk my crust in it. But alone, it is not a diet designed to keep body and soul together.”

We do not write for money, fame, or adoration. We do not write for jobs that we may or may not possess someday. We do not write for security, to indulge our egos, or to deliever sermons. We write because we have to. Because we will go absolutely mad if we don’t. We write, dear readers, to live.

So here’s to living. And thanks for coming along for the ride.


Filed under Creative Writing MFA, grad school, writing